King Uther Pendragon and Queen Igraine were on a night abed, the queen having begun to grow great with child, and the king asked the queen by whom she was pregnant, given the timing, as she had not seen the duke for some time before his death and it seemed too early to have begun after their own wedding. Then the queen began to weep.
"My lord," she said, "I will not lie to you, but have mercy on me, for even I do not fully know how this has happened. Please do not forsake me over this."
The king replied, "Nothing that you can say would make me leave you."
Then the queen told him that she had lain with a man who seemed in every respect her duke, who had arrived at Tintagel with two men who seemed in every respect like men who were loyal to the duke, but who afterward she knew could not be, for her duke was already dead at the time.
Hearing this, the king said, "You are my wife and we are one by that bond; but we must ask Merlin his counsel as to what to be done with the child."
"My lord," she said, "let it be so."
Some time afterward, Merlin returned from his visit with Blaise, and was informed by the king and Sir Ulfius of all that had happened.
He replied, "Sir Ulfius has made a sort of satisfaction for his sin by making the peace, but I must yet do so."
King Uther Pendragon said, "You are wise enough, I have no doubt you can find a way to do so."
The child replied, "Some satisfactions for sin can only be done with aid; I will need your help."
"Say on," said the king. "I have already agreed that you should have the child; what more do you require?"
"There is in this land a good man who is married and has recently had a male child. Let them both be summoned to swear on the holy book that they shall keep a child who shall be brought to them, and raise that child as if he were their own."
"You have but to say the name and I will find him so that it may be done," said the king.
"That shall not be difficult," replied Merlin, "for you already know him. He is Sir Ector, one of the truest men in all of the realm."
King Uther Pendragon was delighted by this suggestion, and after Merlin had taken his leave to return to Blaise, he summoned Sir Ector, for whom he gave a great feast. Sir Ector was surprised by this and asked the reason for it. To this the king replied, "A great marvel has happened to me, and I must beg aid of you."
To which Sir Ector naturally replied, "Whatever my king and brother requires, I will do."
Then the king said, "I have had a strange and wonderful dream. A man came to me in my sleep saying that you are the worthiest and truest man in my realm."
"That is indeed strange and wonderful," said Sir Ector drily.
"No," said the king, "do you think I do not know my foster brother? That is not strange and wonderful at all. But this is the strange thing. He said that you will receive a male child and must raise him along with your own son as if he were your own."
"Did he say when and where I should receive this child, or where and when he would be born?"
"No," said the king, "but ever since I have had this dream, my heart has been unsettled, for I believe that in some dark way the survival of this kingdom may depend on it."
Sir Ector had his doubts, but he said, "As my king wills, so will I attempt to do, if the occasion arises. I shall let my wife know." Thus he did, and although she too, being of a skeptical disposition, thought it strange and unlikely, she agreed that it would be wise to humor the king.
When the time had almost come for Queen Igraine to give birth, Merlin came again to court and sought out Sir Ulfius in secret.
"Tell the king to go to the queen and tell her that she shall bear her son tomorrow after midnight, that she must give her son over to the first man seen in the hall, and that this must be done all in secret, because there are those who would harm the child if it were known that Uther has an heir."
Sir Ulfius said, with some surprise, "Will you not speak to the king yourself?"
But Merlin said, "No," and would say nothing further. So Sir Ulfius went to the king and told him what Merlin had said, and the king went in turn to the queen and told her, although without telling his source.
"I marvel that you know my condition so well," said the queen to the king, "but I will do as you say, especially if you think that the child may be in danger otherwise.
"My lady," he said, "I know that this is not easy for you, but there are many who would harm the child if they could."
That very day, one of the queen's maids and confidantes was out in the town, giving alms on behalf of the queen, when she was stopped by a beggar, to whom she gave a coin.
"I thank you and your lady," said the beggar, "and in exchange, I will give you this word: May the queen be glad in the birth of her son, for he will do wonderful things of great honor, and may she be comforted as well, for her action shall save the life of the boy, that he may do them. And if she has any doubts later, let her look for the cherries in winter, for by them she shall know that the boy is safe." Then the beggar vanished before her eyes.
Marveling, the maiden returned to the queen and told her what had befallen, so that the queen also marveled.
In the morrow after evensong, the queen went into labor and was delivered of the child shortly after midnight. Then after she had held the boy in her arms for a while, she sent for the maiden who had spoken with the beggar and said, "Take this child and carry it to the hall door, and if you meet a man who asks for it, deliver the child to him, but make note what kind of man he is."
The maid obeyed, and when she reached the hall door, she found there an old and rumpled man.
"Why are you here?" she asked.
"I am here to receive what you bring," he replied.
"What man are you, that I might tell my lady?"
But the rumpled old man said, "That is nothing to you; do as you were commanded and let the queen know that it has been done." So the maid handed over the child, but as soon as she had done so, the man vanished, and she knew not where nor how. She returned to the queen and told her what had happened. And the queen wept.
But in the early morning, as Sir Ector was leaving holy mass, Sir Ector was met by a man so old as to be decrepit, who called to him and asked him to bide a moment. And when Sir Ector had courteously turned aside, the man said, "I have brought you a man-child, and I beg that you baptize him and raise him as if he were your own. If you do so, great good will come to you and your heirs, beyond what you would believe if I were to tell you."
And Sir Ector, astonished, said, "This must be the child which the king told me I was to raise as my own."
"It is the same," said the ancient old man. "And the king and all just men and just women should pray you to do so, as I pray you to do so."
"I will take the child," said Sir Ector.
Then the old man said, "God bless you, Sir Ector! For by this deed you will accomplish more than many generations of knights have ever accomplished." And he handed the child over to Sir Ector and disappeared around a corner, before Sir Ector could ask the question that he had on his mind, which was whether the child was to have a name.
Then Sir Ector looked at the child and saw that he was a strong an handsome infant. He arranged with the priest of the church for the child to be baptized that day. The boy was christened Arthur, for the name sounded like the Breton word for 'bear' and also like the name of the Artorii, a Roman clan from whom Sir Ector was descended through one line. Then he brought the boy home to his wife, and they raised the child as the younger brother of their own son, whose name was Kay.
There was a knight of the Round Table, named Sir Cleges, valiant and true, who had rendered many services to King Uther, for he was an excellent warrior. He was known for his excellence in battle and his courtesy in all other situations, but he had retired from the deeds of war some time before. In the king's service he had been well rewarded, but he was generous to a fault, giving gold freely to those in need, and holding it beneath his dignity to scramble after coin. He was also generous to his tenants, and gentle with them when they could not pay their debts, never driving them off the land. He loved holding feasts for kith and kin, and if anyone, even a beggar, showed up at the door when he was having such a feast, they would be invited in and feasted as if they themselves were family. His wife, whose name was Claris, was also generous with money, and much devoted to supporting the Church by alms. Inevitably, they were poor.
Each year for Christmas, Sir Cleges and Lady Claris would hold a great feast in honor of Christ's birth, at which they spared no expense. But as their money ran out, and even when their tenants could not pay what was due, they still spent as freely. To make up the difference, Sir Cleges borrowed, putting up his estates as security. Slowly they vanished into the maws of the moneylenders, until he had only one bit of land left, and, as servants vanished when money dried up to pay them, no one lived there in the castle except Sir Cleges, Lady Claris, and their two children.
On the Christmas Eve after Arthur's birth, Sir Cleges was grieved, thinking of the feast that he would in other years have been preparing on this day. He almost thought he could hear the music and laughter, the pipers and harpers and singers, and he began to weep. As he did so, however, his lady wife entered the room, and taking him in her arms, she said, "Away with all your sorrow, my dear and faithful husband! Give thanks to God for what we yet have. Although we have but one simple meal, it is enough to make merry as we can, as is fitting on these holy days during which everyone should be merry and glad."
And this they did, making such cheer as they could over their simple meal, and playing with their children until evensong, after which they went to bed. When the church bells rang in the holy feast of the Nativity, summoning all to church, the knight and his lady and their children went to mass.
As they returned from mass, Sir Cleges felt himself in a more grateful mood, and he knelt beside a cherry tree in prayer, thanking God for all those in need he had been able to feed in years past. To rise, he grabbed the great bough above his head to pull himself up, and saw that it had become green with leaves and rich with cherries. He broke part of it off and carried it to his lady, asking her, "What do you think this means? I have never heard of cherries growing in winter."
They tasted the cherries in curiosity, and found that they were flawless, and , after giving some to their children, Lady Claris said, "This is surely a token of goodness to come. But it would also be surely wrong not to share it. Let us fill a pannier with this fruit, and you will go to the king's court to give it to him as a gift."
Sir Cleges was delighted by this plan, and that very morning, having filled panniers with cherries, Sir Cleges and his oldest son set out walking for King Uther's court, for they had no horses. Sir Cleges had no sword for defense, but only a stout staff. They both were shabbily dressed and bore baskets on their back, so that Sir Cleges looked more like a poor laboring shepherd than like a knight. Thus when they arrived at the gate, the porter looked suspiciously at him.
"You must withdraw from this place and go the place set aside for beggars," said the porter, "or else, by God and Saint Mary, I will break your head."
But Sir Cleges said to him, "Good sir, I beg you to let me go in. I have not come to beg but to give the king a gift. Then he opened the pannier on his son's back and said, "Look and see for yourself!"
The porter gasped as he beheld the cherries, each one perfect and wholly out of season, and began to consider how such a gift to the king might be rewarded. Then he said, "By God and Saint Mary, you shall not pass this gate unless you promise to give me a third of any gift the king will give you."
Sir Cleges consented to this and therefore he and his son were allowed through the door. Soon he came to a hallway overseen by an usher, who, on seeing such shabby figures said, "Who has let you in here? Get hence or I shall beat you head and foot, and not regret it in the least."
But Sir Cleges replied, "Good sir, by Christ's love, cease your anger, for I have brought a present from the Lord of Heaven who died upon the cross, which I have come to give to the king, your lord and mine." And he lifted the lid of the basket on his son's back, saying, "Look and see for yourself!"
The usher marveled at how beautiful the unexpected cherries were. Then, considering the matter closely, he said, "By sweet Mary, you will not step one foot past the door of this hallway unless you grant me one third of whatever the king may grant you in reward for this gift."
And Sir Cleges consented, seeing no other way to continue, but his face was sober and cheerless in doing so. In the hall beyond the door, he found some wealthy lords, a steward, a deputy serving in the place of Sir Ector, the seneschal, who was away on king's business. All of them were dressed in marvelously fine clothes. Seeing Sir Cleges and his son, the steward boldly went up to them and said, "Churl, who made you such a fool as to come here without being summoned? Withdraw with your shabby clothes at once!"
To which Sir Cleges replied, "Peace, good sir. I have brought a present for my lord the king from the Lord who died upon the cross." And he opened the lid on the basket on his son's back. "Look and see for yourself!"
The steward wondered at the cherries, saying, "I have never in all my life seen such fruit at this time of the year." Then, thinking about the reward such a luxury might command, he said, "You shall come no nearer to the king unless you promise to give me a third part of any gift the king might give you in return for this; promise, or throw yourself out!"
Sir Cleges was silent a long moment, thinking that he would then receive nothing at all for his gift to the king, despite the difficulty of his journey, and that he would perhaps have been better off simply to eat the cherries with his family at home. But, seeing the steward impatient, he finally consented.
Thus finally Sir Cleges received an audience, and he came before King Uther Pendragon and Queen Igraine as they sat upon their thrones. Sir Cleges knelt, offering his present, then, setting the baskets on the ground, he opened them so that all might see the cherries.
The king and the queen both rose at the sight, astonished with delight, and tasted of the cherries; the queen especially held that she had never known cherries so perfect, and her eyes were bright as she said it. She had the cherries served throughout the hall, as the king said, "Make merry, my friends! The one who has brought us this gift will surely be rewarded."
"I thank you heartily," King Uther Pendragon said to Sir Cleges. "You have made my court joyful and made this day memorable to all. By God's good grace, whatever you wish, I will give, if God does not impede it, whether it be land or anything else your heart desires." And Queen Igraine spoke her approval of this.
Sir Cleges replied, "I thank you, my king, for such a gracious gift, for I am but a poor knight. To give me land, or gold, or silver, is much too much for such as I. Therefore I ask only one thing: to have full permission, as if it were the king himself who did it, to give out twelve stout blows with my staff, safe by king's authority from all penalty or retaliation. By holy charity, this is all I need; grant this to me, so that I may repay what needs repayment."
The king replied, "I repent my grant. By God who made us both, you would do better to take gold as your fee. You seem to need it more."
But Sir Cleges replied that the king had asked and he had given the king his answer, by the guarantee of the king's word. The king was angry and sorely grieved, but he ordered that it be as was agreed. Sir Cleges immediately went through the hall, searching through the great lords, until he found the steward. He struck the steward, who fell down like a stone, and then hit him with the staff three more times.
"Sir, for your courtesy, strike me no more!" cried the steward.
Sir Cleges then went and found the usher, giving him four hard blows over the head, saying, as he did so, "Here is the third of my reward that we both agreed that I should give you!" The usher was given such an ache that he could not fulfill his duties for several days afterward.
Finally Sir Cleges came to the porter, whom he paid with his third so stoutly that the man could neither speak nor fulfill his office for several days, and his shoulder and arm were also broken.
The king meanwhile had withdrawn to a side-parlor to cheer his mood, making mirth and revel with his noblemen and listening to a harpist play. When the harpist had finished, the king said, "Tell me, since you seem to know many people, who was that poor knight who brought the cherries, if you know?"
"That," said the harpist, "was surely Sir Cleges, one of your knights, a man of high stature when his fortune was better."
"That cannot be Sir Cleges!" said the king. "I wish it were, for Sir Cleges did me many a fine service, and I would rather have him than three other knights."
Sir Cleges shortly after returned to the king, having delivered his twelve strokes and, kneeling before the king, thanked him for granting his request. Then the king asked why he had demanded that gift. He replied, "The three men to whom I gave the strokes would not let me enter unless I promised to give them each one third of my reward for the cherries. Since I would then have nothing, I decided to ask for twelve strokes as my reward."
The king and all the barons in the parlor laughed heartily at this. "Whatever the clothes he may be wearing," said some of the barons, "surely this man is of noble kin, because he has a noble wit." And some laughed so hard they fell off their chairs.
The king, however, took a moment's thought and sent for the steward. "I understand you have an agreement with this man; if he has received any further gifts, ask your lawful due."
But the steward said, "I want nothing more to do with this man; I wish I never knew him." And some of the barons began laughing again.
"Tell me your name," the king commanded, turning to Sir Cleges.
Sir Cleges replied, "My lord, men call me Sir Cleges; in a younger day, I was a knight of your Round Table."
"Are you really that man, so noble and free, so strong and hardy?"
"Yes, my lord," said Sir Cleges, "until God chose to take it away."
The king then made sure that Sir Cleges was given all that a knight needed, a good horse, a good sword, and good armor, with excellent clothes and a purse of gold and estates around Cardiff. He also made his son a squire as well as lands of his own, and gave them both a finely wrought cup of gold to give to Lady Claris.
When they returned home, Lady Claris gave thanks to God for having given her both a knight and squire. On Sir Ector's return, after some consultation, the king made Sir Cleges one of the king's stewards, and the knight, always better at caring for another's treasure than his own, no longer lacked for anything. He died not long afterward, respected by all, and Lady Claris followed him not long after that, having given a generous donation to the Church for prayers for their souls. Their oldest son later became a knight of some renown and was known to all as Sir Amadas; their youngest son, Sir Eglamour, traveled abroad and had even more extraordinary adventures.